If all you knew about America’s urban topography came from the loudest cries and the strongest opinions, you might conclude that cities consisted of nothing but cute little houses and megalithic skyscrapers. Housing-for-all advocates are eager to do away with the first to build the second; protectors of neighborhood character fear that’s exactly what will happen if they don’t fight for every gable and square inch of lawn. Relinquish so much as a comma of zoning regulations and local ordinances, they worry, and Grover’s Corners will morph into midtown Manhattan.
There are plenty of shades of density — townhouses, bungalows, small apartment buildings, duplexes — and as with so much else in our politicized culture, debates take place at the extremes. Almost 80 percent of Los Angeles’ buildable area, nearly half a million parcels, is zoned for single-family houses. Big chunks of New York, too, are kept low density by law. There are powerful reasons to change that: to use less energy, rein in sprawl, promote public transit, provide more housing at lower cost. But in a nation of binary options, every attempt to slip in more density is answered by the same shiver-inducing hex: Towers! Residents of low-rise deluxe neighborhoods erect barricades against the poor. Residents of low-rise, low-income neighborhoods fend off speculators and gentrifiers.
Los Angeles suffers from this litigious stagnation more than most cities. Housing prices have stayed stubbornly high and severe restrictions on density keep pushing the city out to meet the wildfires. Much of L.A.’s housing is desperately overcrowded, a condition that COVID made lethal, so making it cheaper to build is a way to save lives. A McKinsey study concluded that just fitting four bungalows on a single lot — a fourplex — is the least expensive way to provide new housing. And yet attempts to loosen regulations for residential neighborhoods — scaling back parking requirements, bringing homes closer to sidewalks, or allowing corner stores — have gone about as smoothly as a rush-hour drag race on the 405.
Ordinary Angelenos have more nuanced views than activists and politicians, insists Christopher Hawthorne, who, as the city’s chief design officer, is Mayor Eric Garcetti’s architectural consigliere. “This idea of polarization is not helpful and not entirely accurate,” he says. “Most people are in the middle between NIMBY and YIMBY. They recognize that what we have now is not a sustainable model, but they have reasonable concerns about what changes would mean in their own neighborhood. Especially in communities of color.”
And so Hawthorne has tried to pick his way through the ideological trenches. He issued a public plea to architects that reads, in effect: Help us come up with some new light density that won’t freak everybody out. This gambit took the form of a city-sponsored competition, called Low-Rise: Housing Ideas for Los Angeles, complete with cash prizes and bragging rights, but not a path to construction. When you’re using design to nudge a change in the law, it will, by definition, yield proposals that are illegal to build. The results, revealed a few days ago, offer a suite of design solutions to a political problem. I don’t know whether that’s the equivalent of trying to sing your way to better tax policy or, as Hawthorne hopes, a subtle strategy to change the conversation. It’s certainly an ingenious experiment that’s yielded some fine public-facing architecture.
The first category is the corner grouping, a category that the Brooklyn-based architect Vonn Weisenberger won with a gently idealistic modern miniature village. Single- and two-story homes, joined in pairs by a prefabricated common core that contains the plumbing, cluster around a landscaped court. There, residents can garden, dine, read, or get on each other’s nerves on a patch of communally owned property. As a vision of the kind of future a slight density bump might bring, it’s not exactly apocalyptic. For apartment dwellers, it’s hard to understand why this kind of arrangement would be out of the question anywhere, what social problems it would trigger, or why it would crater property values. That’s the whole point. This is a competition not for airy architectural fantasies but for ideas so radically reasonable that they elicit shrugs rather than gasps.
Illegal-but-shouldn’t-be situation No. 2 is the fourplex. The winner of that category, a team made up of Omngivning and Studio-MLA, produced an intricate Rubik’s Cube of living spaces designed to knit a neighborhood more tightly together. What today would be a single house’s front yard becomes a collective garden, a deposit of sorts into a community land trust that could one day weave through multiple blocks. In today’s rigidified grid of single-family homes, a single adult occupies the same real-estate format as a family of four or a multigenerational clan. The architects of the competition’s first- and second-place entries have tried to design for the way people live, rather than asking people to adapt to habitats that don’t really fit. Many have the satisfying efficiency of a galley kitchen, with greenery, shade, footpaths, bedrooms, and common areas all slipped into their slots. But they also recognize that people don’t always occupy space with an architect’s lust for precision. They buy cars, drop bikes on the lawn, cram closets, and have mutable domestic arrangements. The best designs share an ethic of flexibility.
The winner of a third category, subdivision (a team led by Louisa Van Leer and Antonio Castillo), goes even further in blurring the distinction between public and private space. The street-facing side of each block remains largely unchanged, a row of ordinary homes. At the back, a row of two-story duplexes faces the mid-block alley. All over the country, these back lanes have an enduring reputation as dangerous, clandestine, and unsanitary places; during the Depression, the federal government essentially declared them unfit for habitation. And yet Los Angeles has 900 miles of alleys that could be reclaimed as green conduits for pedestrians and bikes. It’s like finding an extra room behind the bathroom mirror, a whole forgotten city layered onto the one you thought you knew.
These entries make it clear how much urban life can be upgraded by rethinking the segments of marginal land that come bundled with each separate house: the paved yard, the alley, the driveway, the garage. The competition’s pitch is that this abundance of wasted space means L.A. can be remade incrementally and almost invisibly. In fact, it’s already happening. The California state legislature recently passed a law allowing accessory dwelling units, or ADUs, freestanding mini apartments that share a lot with a main house. That’s had little impact in most California cities so far — but in L.A., “ADU production went bonkers,” says architect Jason Neville. Backyard outbuildings now account for more than a fifth of all new housing permits in the city, where Hawthorne has developed a set of standard preapproved designs. That one piece of legislation created new housing options and economic opportunities for builders who were locked out of big development. “It used to be that to buy a place to live you had to have $900,000 in cash. I can build an ADU for $100,00 to $300,000,” Neville says. “We are a mom-and-pop housing builder working out of a garage. The construction crews are small shops, and the demolition gets done by a couple of guys with pickup trucks. There’s an industry that wasn’t there before.”
To some Los Angeles architects, the ADU experience suggests that what L.A. needs is not a competition or a menu of fancy design ideas but a few basic rule changes that would let property owners, architects, and builders meet the city’s needs and fulfill their own creativity. Unfortunately, that’s like saying all you have to do to decrease gun violence is change a few laws. Housing is one of those areas where it’s almost impossible to separate the rational from the ideological. Low-Rise L.A. is Hawthorne’s strategy to give everyone something lovely to look at. It’s the planning version of a campaign video with a puppy in it: How could you hate this? The ideas he’s fighting for here are good, even urgent, but the question remains whether releasing a handful of architectural beagles can soften any hearts or open any minds.